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Choosing Vegetarian Protein?

I've decided to become a vegetarian, but I don't know much about vegetarian sources of protein. Can you help?

Answer (Published 10/20/2011)

Congratulations, I think you’ve made a wise diet decision. As you may know, I was a lacto-vegetarian (my diet allowed for some dairy products) from 1970 to about 1987, when I began to include eating fish, so I know from personal experience that a vegetarian diet can be both healthy and satisfying. For the record, vegetarians have a lower-than-normal incidence of heart disease and cancer and lower risks of obesity and diabetes.

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I’m happy to provide you with some guidance to sources of vegetarian protein. Here’s a rundown:

  • Seitan, a vegetarian meat substitute, is made from wheat gluten and is a good source of protein (it provides 23 grams of protein per 1/3 cup). It is low in fat and sodium. You can use it in place of other vegetarian sources of protein such as tofu or tempeh and can add it to stir fried vegetables to make a complete meal. It has a good, "meaty" texture.
  • Soy protein (including tofu or tempeh) is nutritionally equivalent to the protein you would get from meat, chicken, fish or eggs. Try coating slices of tempeh with olive oil and grill or broil, brushing with your favorite barbecue sauce. You can find many recipes for tofu on this site. Look around and try the ones that appeal to you most.
  • Many unprocessed plant foods, such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds and nuts all provide adequate amounts of protein. Beans and lentils are 20-25% protein by weight, and are a staple for many vegetarians and vegans. They’re also rich in folic acid, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber. Check this site for recipes.
  • Quinoa, pronounced "keen-wah," is sometimes referred to as a grain but is really a pseudocereal, meaning that it is the seed of a broadleaf plant (true cereals are the seeds of grasses). The quinoa plant is a relative of beets, spinach and Swiss chard, but we treat its seeds as we would a grain, preparing and eating them in much the same way. They are very quick cooking. Quinoa’s protein is complete, containing all nine essential amino acids – a rarity in the plant kingdom. In fact, quinoa has the highest protein content of any grain. Quinoa is gluten-free and easy to digest. Try this True Food Kitchen recipe for red quinoa.

You can eat very well on a vegetarian diet. I hope my suggestions and recipes will tempt you.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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